Gummy frogs! Gummy worms! Pirate Otters! Saving Miss Madeline, our beloved teacher! The Book of the Darned!
The only thing missing from this game is puppy dogs and rainbows, and since I haven’t beaten it yet, I’m assuming there is a puppy dog and rainbow planet. Welcome to Magical Starsign, an RPG for the Nintendo DS made by developer Brownie Brown. Reading Tyson’s recent Heroes of Mana review, he mentioned Brownie Brown is a renegade group that broke off from Square. My guess is that Square rounded up all the people who they thought should be teaching preschool instead of making video games and fired them, but I digress.
The setting for Magical Starsign is the Will o’ Wisp Academy, where a group of students overhear their headmaster talking to their favorite teacher. Apparently one of the Academy’s students, a former dorky kid, has turned into quite the evil badass and is up to no good. I suppose that is the problem with magical academies, instead of getting high paying programming jobs and hiring hookers, the kids who got stuffed in lockers instead turn to gratuitous evil. The headmaster dispatches Miss Madeline, the teacher, to stop him, and the students (your party) eagerly follow.
What begins is for the most part a routine RPG, with a few interesting twists and a few boring quirks. Because everyone is a mage, the battle system revolves for the most part around magic. Although characters are capable of physical attacks, there are no “weapons” slots, and these attacks are mainly reserved for when you’re out of mana, or for certain monsters who are immune to magic. Each character is attuned to a particular element: five that are circularly opposed (earth, water, fire, wood, wind) and then two that are directly opposed (light and shadow).
The five support characters in the game each have one of the traditional elements, and the main character is either light or shadow (you get to pick). I picked light, because shadow is clichéd, and the first shadow spell is “Shadow Die.” I thought this was cutesy “Shadow die!” power ranger stuff, but in fact it hurls a die of shadow. Whatever.
The game features a sort of real time system, in which there is a day-night cycle, and then an “Astrolog” where planets orbit the sun. There is a planet for each of the primary elements, and when that planet is in a certain part of its orbit, characters (and monsters) of that element power up. Shadow and light characters are affected by the day/night cycle, so your main character is powered up far more often than your supporting cast. Adding a bit of a variety is the fact that the planets have different orbital lengths, so some characters are powered up more often, but for shorter, and others less often, but for longer.
Another interesting aspect of the combat system is the rows. While many games feature a front and back row, in Magical Starsign, back rowed characters can only cast their spells with an area of effect, whereas front row characters can only singly target. The AOE style of the spell varies: some hit all enemies, others split into multiple attacks that target randomly. Back rowed characters also cannot use physical attacks, but they are protected from physical attacks from enemies.
On the less interesting side of things, the game is very linear. Over halfway through the game, there has been one meaningful choice, and it affected the way in which characters rejoined my party–once. Items are pretty straight forward, with new upgrades available at a shop per area, with the occasional interesting item from treasures chests. The game’s most obnoxious feature is that there are hidden chests that only appear when planets are aligned in a certain fashion: typically this matches up to the planet you’re on. So if the water planet is waxing and you’re on the water planet, there are typically hidden chests galore. Although the power gamer in me might make me hunt these down, items seem to be fairly insignificant in the scheme of the game. Frankly I’m not even sure what all the statistics do exactly, and it hasn’t stopped me from romping through the game. The only time I’ve died in 20 hours of play was when a giant flaming ball rolled over my party on the overview, sentencing me to instant death.
Because it is a DS game, there has to be a retarded and distracting use of the touch screen. When a character casts a spell, you can tap them at a certain point for extra effect. Although not critical for success, it’s critical enough that if I fail I get pissed off, and I generally feel obligated to do it. The flip side is when you’re attacked, you can also tap the character being attacked to guard for less damage. The guard function has less impact than the bonus damage, but can be useful if a character is near death.
Although everyone is a spellcaster, the game has surprisingly few spells. Each character has 5 spells he or she can learn, many of which are relatively useless support skills. There is also a “wildcard” slot that you can fill with various spells from books, but almost all of these spells are useless. Most are underpowered, and almost all of them require excessive and annoying use of the touch screen. This is a real shame, because the wildcard spell feature could be one of the game’s strong points. Instead it’s useless.
The final item to mention is that there is a multiplayer “Amigo” mode, which scores points for latent racism. Racism is important to me as a gamer, even though I don’t play Halo. Apparently you can find eggs which turn into egg characters, only accessible in Amigo mode. I have yet to find any eggs. Further, you can play the “Amigo Dungeon” in multiplayer mode, which intrigues me because I’m thinking of a sketchy Mexican prison. Because I don’t want my hopes to be dashed, I have yet to enjoy this feature.
Despite its quirks, Magical Starsign is bizarrely entertaining. The dialogue is surprisingly good, and the game is fun to play. The boss fights are the best part, mainly because most regular monster fights can be quickly resolved without even using the majority of the party. Since I primarily play my DS when commuting, the fact that you can save anywhere is a huge boon. Although I rail against the simplicity of the game, it’s a refreshing change in an RPG, and probably why I’ve been able to play the game casually over a series of weeks without losing interest. Magical Starsign is like a good casual sexual relationship (like the one I have with your sister)–it keeps you interested, it’s low maintenance, you can play other games at the same time without a problem: and overall, it’s quite enjoyable.
* Authors Note: After writing this review, I sunk another 3 hours into the game. During which a character sacrificed life itself to a man-eating plant in order to acquire a magic gummy, robots were determined to be converting people into gummies for a power source, and a giant bug murdered a girl (who was then later resurrected). I don’t know how to reconcile gummies with people-eating robots.